Sickle cell trial is changing lives in Birmingham

Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 11:45 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - “No more limitations,” says Anissa Gunn. “I’m finally free”.

The Miles College student and football team equipment manager is a participant in a clinical trial that some believe has the potential to cure Sickle Cell Disease.

Last summer, Gunn had her stem cells harvested, then underwent chemotherapy to prepare for the reintroduction of those stem cells under the care of Dr. Julie Kanter, Director of UAB’s Comprehensive Sickle Cell Clinic.

“It is where we actually take out a patient’s STEM cells using a process called apheresis, which looks like dialysis, but it’s filtering for STEM cells instead and send them off to a lab where a new gene for healthy hemoglobin A is inserted and given back to the patients and those patients are doing phenomenally,” says Dr. Kanter. “We actually just presented data at our most recent conference, on over 25 people who are over six months out and overwhelmingly, they are doing amazing, no serious adverse events, no, serious vaso-occlusive crises or pain crises.”

She says researchers have lost one patient because of heart damage he suffered through sickle cell before entering the trial.

While the gene addition approach is seen as the most innovative, Dr. Kanter says she is also excited about other therapies that are showing promise in sickle cell patients.

Half-match donor therapy allows for everyone to have a donor since the donor only needs to “half-match” the patient’s tissue type. “So they have to stay closer in to Birmingham and they have a few more visits and slightly more risk because of the risk of graft versus host disease, but great reward because we know that if it works, it’ll be curative.”

As important to Kanter is the effort to spread access to care for sickle cell patients across Alabama.

“I firmly believe everyone with sickle cell disease deserves a sickle cell specialist and we’re failing in that regard,” says Kanter. She and others are working to build a statewide network to get better care to patients as well as the formation of National Alliance of Sickle Cell Centers which was just formed in December.

“It’s awesome to have these gene therapies but if we can’t get them to people who need them, we’re not doing our job well enough.”

Gunn, meanwhile, is preparing to bring all her new-found energy back to Miles in fall and is currently looking for a summer job. She must still be monitored for several years as a part of the clinical trial, but is excited.

“I still want to go to the military. I still want to finish school,” she said.

This, in addition to building out a business she has started with friends.

“All the limitations and restrictions that I’ve had to deal with all my life, from hearing it from doctors telling me I can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s gone. I have nothing to hold me back but myself.”

Copyright 2021 WBRC. All rights reserved.

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